Notes on Education & Excellence

I attended the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) for my Ph.D. According to the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education, this is a Research University with Very High (RU/VH) research expectations, one of 108 such institutions in the U.S. According to the 2014-2015 ranking of World Institutions, UIUC ranks as 29th in the world. According to the University of Nairobi website, UoN ranks as 1624 in the world. A more updated metric suggests it is actually 907 in the world.

These numbers matter, if only because knowledge travels along global lines and with global implications. Kenyan academics interact with their global peers at global conferences and send their academic papers to international journals. Their knowledge is assessed against global standards of recognition.

The Commission for University Education (CUE), following a mandate from the Education Cabinet Secretary, recently announced that it would only permit Ph.D. holders to lecture in Kenyan universities. Those holding Master’s degrees “have been reduced to tutorial or junior research fellows.” Simultaneously, using a point system, CUE has raised the bar for those aspiring to Associate Professor and Professor levels.

According to a Business Daily article, those aspiring to promotion must publish a certain number of works and supervise a certain number of Ph.D. students.

On the face of it, these demands line up with those in other spaces.

When I worked as an assistant professor at the University of Maryland, College Park (UMCP), faculty members were assessed based on scholarship, teaching and mentoring, and service to the institution and the profession. One achieved promotion for helping to build the institution and the profession, by building and spreading knowledge in the classroom, in conference spaces, and through publication.

Like UIUC, UMCP is classified as a RU/VH: it has high research expectations. One is expected not merely to contribute knowledge to one’s field, but to have a significant effect on one’s field, as assessed by faculty at peer institutions.

Because research and publishing expectations are high, the institution provides support in the form of low teaching loads—I taught two classes each semester; reduced teaching loads and paid time off to conduct research—I had the equivalent of six months off during my third year to conduct research and write; funds to support national and international conference travel; and additional funds to aid in publishing journal articles and books.

This support acknowledges that thinking and research take time and that being published in top journals also takes time, including the long period while peer review takes place and the extended publishing calendar. Within the humanities, it is not unusual for a journal article to take two years from submission to print. That is, the requirements for promotion took note of prevailing publishing conditions.

Promotion from assistant professor to associate professor typically takes about 7 years. For a RU/VH institution, this promotion typically requires one completed book published with a reputable press and a handful of journal articles published in reputable journals. One’s teaching and service are also assessed. Promotion to full professor requires at least another full-length book, recognition from one’s peers at similar institutions, and a record of service to the institution and profession that includes supervising Ph.D. students.

All along the way, it is the quality of one’s contributions that are assessed, not simply the quantity.

Granted, the details in the Business Daily articles are sparse, but it seems as though to become a full professor, one might need to publish at least 10-15 academic books. If this is so, then a logic that values production over quality has taken hold, and it will not serve Kenya well.

If standards for promotion are to be raised, then it only makes sense that institutions requiring those higher standards also create the conditions that permit faculty to meet those standards. Will faculty have opportunities for lower teaching loads? Will they have the paid time off they require to produce original, world-class scholarship? Will faculty have writing support, in the form of ongoing publication workshops and symposia? Will those MA-holding faculty members be supported to complete their doctoral work, if that is what they want and need?

These, of course, are not necessarily questions that the public needs to know. CUE has its own internal procedures and, I’m sure, Kenyan institutions have their own processed to facilitate faculty development and success.

That said, if we are to demand excellence from our institutions, from the faculty who teach and from the students who learn, then we must also create the conditions that make excellence possible.

6 thoughts on “Notes on Education & Excellence

  1. When I read that article, I was like: and there goes my dreams. I was on my way to doing a PhD in social research but now it seems the furthest I can go is being a senior lecrurer. I wanted to be a professor by age 35. Either I go abroad or I forget it. The quantity vs quality thing they just based will make Kenyan Education more garbage than it already is.

    1. I have not seen the guidelines issued, and it might be there is room for innovation: if digital scholarship counts, if blogging counts, if book reviews count, I can imagine ways to hit these publication requirements. Though it will require a lot of production fairly quickly.

      1. Which in actuality weighs down on productivity and quality. Successive production means no years of research…just some shambled up perspective with no prove…or reduplication of what is already there.

      2. I’m with you–it seems fairly terrible. It also keeps those already in senior positions firmly situated without any institutional challenges–no room for change. Plus, of course, if you are teaching a lot, I’m simply not sure when there will be time to publish a lot. Each one takes a lot of time and energy.

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